Merchant-Ivory movies are varied in their settings and styles, but one theme pervades most of them: otherness. In "Shakespeare-wala" for instance, a troop of British actors - most born and raised in India - perform Shakespeare plays for the Maharajas and their families before India's independence in 1947. The British actors' entire existence was in India and many of them had never even been to their "native" England. When Indian independence arrived in 1947, the maharajas were ousted and their families lost their power and wealth. As a result, the actors had no one to play to - funds were scarce for art and theater - and no other marketable skills in India.
They contemplated a return to England, but the return would not be a return at all - England would be as foreign to them as Germany: all they knew was India. And without a role in India, India was not their home either as they were white, British and their kind had just been ousted as India's colonial power. This troop of actors personified the concept of the "painted bird," the other in literature.
The narratives we have encountered this semester have dealt extensively with this concept of the other, or the painted bird. Each of the protagonists, in fact, represents the painted bird in his or her own way: not belonging, at first, in his or her immediate surroundings, but soon, we as readers realize that the protagonist does not belong anywhere at all.
That is the nature of otherness: supreme non-belonging. Otherness can be caused by circumstances, personality or a combination of both. At first, it seems natural to want to limit otherness, but upon closer examination of the phenomenon that is the feeling of otherness, we realize that to limit otherness would suppress that which is great in the human spirit. Indeed otherness is key and integral to the notion of the American spirit.
Cora in Langston Hughes' short story "Cora Unashamed" is the perfect example of the "other" or the painted bird:
Cora was the oldest of a family of eight children - the Jenkins niggers. The only Negroes in Melton, thank God! Where they came from originally - that is, the old folks - God knows. The kids were born there. The old folks are still there now. Pa drives a junk wagon. The old woman ails around the house, ails and quarrels. Seven kids are gone. Only Cora remains. Cora simply couldn't go, with nobody else to help take care of Ma. And before that she couldn't go, with nobody to see that her brothers and sisters got through school (she the oldest, and Ma ailing). And before that - well, somebody had to help Ma look after one baby behind another that kept on coming. (Hughes 1)
Not only is Cora a woman and an African-American in a country with a long history of enslaving and discriminating against African-Americans and discriminating against women, she lives in a town with no other African-Americans. She does not belong in that town, she does not belong in the Studevants family and she does not really belong at home, because she is only there "with Ma and Pa" by default as is exhibited by the above passage.
She finally finds a place where she belongs - with Jessie. But even Jessie is taken away from her the end, and that is when Cora finally realizes that she is "the other":
Cora got up from her seat by the dining room door. She said, "Honey, I want to say something." She spoke as if she were addressing Jessie. She approached the coffin and held out her brown hands over the white girl's body. Her face moved in agitation. "They killed you! And for nothin'...They killed your child...They took you away from here in the springtime of your life and now you're gone, gone, gone!...They preaches you a pretty sermon and they don't say nothin'. The sings you a song, and they don't say nothin'. But Cora's here, she's gone tell'em what they done to you. She's gonna tell'em why they took you to Kansas City." (Hughes 9)
Here, in realizing her otherness - in finally stepping up to say her peace - Cora comes into her own and finally belongs. She exhibits a theme which has grown ever clearer over the course of this semester: otherness is a necessary step on the path to enlightenment and belonging and possession of one's own existence.
Cora steps into the arena in which is least welcome - in which is most the "other" - and takes the otherness bull by the horns and emerges a free woman, who belongs. Deborah Tannen observes in "We've come a long way, maybe," "If you use the pronoun 's/he' when writing, or write "women and men" rather than "man and women," you are not just writing words: you are making a statement that may "mark" you as being a 'feminist.'" Here, Tannen argues that even our word choice may mark us as the other. Where Cora's entire existence marked as the other, it seems a stretch to say that even the selection of words or their ordering may have the same effect, but Tannen substantiates her point in her essay "There is no Unmarked Woman."
Tannen establishes that we make conscious decisions to be the other. But indeed, that is how we progress. Martin Luther King Jr. was the other, so was the Mahatma Gandhi. Einstein was the other, as was Helen Keller. As the popular aphorism states, "Well-behaved women rarely make history." And well-behaved women, such as Cora, make history when they step out of their otherness existence and assert their right to belong.
Melissa Algranati explores a concept of otherness that is akin to the Shakespeare-wala example we provided earlier:
Throughout my whole life, people have mistaken me for other ethnic backgrounds rather than for what I really am. I learned at a young age that there are not too many Puerto Rican Egyptian Jews out there. For most of my life I have been living in two worlds, and at the same time I have been living in neither. When I was young I did not realize that I was unique, because my family brought me up with a healthy balance of Puerto Rican and Sephardic customs. It was not until I took the standardized PSAT exam that I was confused with the question: "Who am I?" (Algranati 571)
Here, Algranati argues that otherness is imposed externally. This does indeed seem the case, as she had no idea she was an other until standardized descriptions were imposed upon her.
Cora would disagree with this assessment, because her entire nature was that of the other, and externalities only exacerbated her otherness. Perhaps George Orwell clears up the distinction a bit with the words "That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes." (Orwell, 128) Orwell intimates that otherness exists in us all to a certain degree, and it grows in complexity at the individual level because of externalities.
A myself have experienced feelings of otherness, most definitely lately with regard to the tragic events of September 11th. My land was under attack by forces of evil I had never dreamt existed, and I was left alone, unable to combat in anyway. I could only give blood in the weeks that followed and hope for the best. The feeling of profound otherness has conflicted all Americans in the past few months. We are neither Palestinians living in the West Bank or Jews living in the settlements around Israel. However, their every moment is known to us on…